Digital Minimalism

We are currently reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport in our Stoicism Winnipeg book club.  The subtitle is “Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World”.

I just finished the book last night, so I thought I’d take some time to write a brief summary of some of the big ideas I’m working with and their relationship to the practice of Stoic philosophy.

If you’re interested in discussing the ideas in this book, consider joining us for a live discussion on Sunday April 7 @ 6:30PM. Somewhat ironically we use WhatsApp to coordinate the details. If you’d like to join the group, please send me a message with your contact details and I’ll add you to the group!

Big Ideas:

  1. “They’re programming people.”
  2. Intentionality is satisfying.
  3. Reclaiming solitude.
  4. High quality leisure.
  5. “It’s not about technology….”

“They’re programming people”

The quote comes from an interview between Anderson Cooper and Tristan Harris. Harris is a former Google Engineer turned whistleblower. 

He cautions users of technology to be aware of the fact that there are teams of professionals programming the apps and devices you are using in such a way that you will use them as much as possible. “[Technology] is not neutral. They want you to use it in particular ways and for long periods of time. Because that’s how they make their money”. 

The apps are programmed to make you crave another glance. To spend a few extra minutes interacting. To feel like you cannot be away from it. 

It’s an “attention-economy”. 

If you feel like a happy life depends on having your app-loaded phone within reach 24/7, you’re not alone, and it is no accident. It is a “feature” programmed into the software and sold to advertisers. 

Cal Newport probably comes across as less of a conspiracy-theorist than this short blog post will sound. He develops a strong case for being wary of how much you engage with these technologies.

The promise of Stoic philosophy is boiled down to satisfaction with what is within your own resources. Namely: your will, your thoughts, your judgments, your desires. Also, your attention. 

Epictetus: “Guard by every means that which is your own.” Don’t sell your attention cheaply. 

“When you relax your attention for a little while, do not imagine that whenever you choose you will recover it, but bear this in mind, that because of the error you made today, your condition must necessarily be worse as regards everything else. For, to begin with – and this is the worst of all – a habit of not paying attention is developed; and after that a habit of deferring attention; and always you grow accustomed to putting off, from one time to another, serene and appropriate living, the life in accord with nature, and persistence in that life.” Epictetus, Discourses, 4.12.

Intentionality is Satisfying

Along the same lines of being increasingly aware and “choosy” about where we place or give our attention is the advice to be intentional about how we use the technology.

As mentioned in big idea 1, the apps and devices are programmed to make you want to use the technology in ways that make the companies the most money. Everything from how you are notified, how easy it is to swipe perpetually for new content, how quickly you can become immersed in feeds, etc. is by-design. 

Newport is not anti-tech. He is not even anti-social media. However, he encourages users of social media to use it on their own terms. Define, with bright lines, why you are using the apps and how you are using them (when, in what situation, and for how long). 

Clearly defining your “rules of engagement” with the apps you use might be sufficient to make a significant change in your sense of agency with how you use them, but beware! Remember that the odds are stacked against you as they are leveraging your own flawed humanity against you: programming your responses with intermittent positive reinforcement and drive for social approval. 

Regardless, if you take no other moves, attempting to draw up your rules of engagement and then being evaluating well you are able to follow them can, in itself, bring increased awareness to how much of a problem the programming is for you. 

“To let one’s mind go lax is, in effect, to lose it” (Musonius Rufus, Sayings, 52).

Reclaiming Solitude

Solitude is defined in the book as “the subjective state in which your mind is free from other inputs”. 

Newport explains the gradual progression of a loss of solitude which became nearly complete with the introduction of social media notifications on the smart phone. 

“The smartphone provided a new technique to banish these remaining slivers of solitude: the quick glance. At the slightest hint of boredom, you can now surreptitiously glance at any number of apps or mobile-adapted websites that have been optimized to provide you an immediate and satisfying dose of input from other minds. It’s now possible to completely banish solitude from your life.” (101)

Why does this matter to the Stoic? 

Newport writes: “Solitude requires you to move past reacting to information created by other people and focus instead on your own thoughts and experiences – wherever you happen to be.” 

Stoics were strong proponents of being actively engaged with the human community. However, they did so from a position of being strongly rooted in their disciplines of desire and aversion.

The problem with perpetual distraction, from a Stoic standpoint, is losing touch with your own “divine nature”. How can you live according to nature if you are out of touch with it?

Newport outlines some simple strategies for reclaiming solitude in your life including:

  1. Time away from all inputs
  2. Taking long walks
  3. Writing yourself a letter

The third idea certainly has a lot of Stoic “history” behind it as one of our primary texts is Marcus Aurelius writing to himself, over and again, the core Stoic precepts which guided his life in his Meditations. 

“Retire into yourself as much as you can” (Seneca, Letters, VII)

High Quality Leisure

When the new iPhone feature, “ScreenTime”, landed on my phone, I was horrified to see that I was engaging with my phone for an average of 2 hours and 50 minutes per day, picking it up to glance or respond to its notifications an average of 92 times per day. 

I considered myself to be a light user. I did not have the FaceBook app. I used Instagram explicitly for watching gymnastic exercise routines. I checked Google News once or twice per day. And I was already horrible at text messaging. 

The reality was a shock to me. 

I’ve talked with many close friends about how they respond to the information, and many of them are equally horrified with their own usage statistics. One friend admitted she couldn’t bear to look at the numbers anymore. 

But, among my peers, I am the only one who has successfully drastically reduced my usage. A “quick glance” shows I’m at an average of 65 minutes per day (up 39% from last week… yikes!) with an average of 28 pick-ups. 

I rarely find my time on the phone to be enjoyable. So it was intuitive to me that if I could cut down on phone time, I could probably increase my time in activities that are, what Newport calls, “High Quality Leisure”. 

What has this yielded for me so far? 

  1. Playing board games (completely undistracted) with my children.
  2. Reading three times as many books.
  3. More moments of meditation throughout the day. 
  4. Never missing a day where I can strum my guitar for awhile. 
  5. Time to write this post!
  6. More actual conversations with family and friends (hmmm… I wonder if those FaceTime calls accounted for my 39% increase?)

What does this have to do with Stoicism?

Maybe, strictly speaking, a little less than the things above. Attention and intention are certainly core to the employment of virtue.

But, there is also wisdom in recognizing that we are human animals who need to live our lives in “waves”. We tend to thrive if we have “On” time and “Off” time. On the other hand, if we are always “On”, then we tend to burn-out. 

“The mind has to be given some time off,” says Seneca, “but in such a way that it may be refreshed, not relaxed till it goes to pieces.” (Letters, XV)

“It’s not about technology…”

“In my experience, the key to sustained success with this philosophy is accepting that it’s not really about technology, but is instead more about the quality of your life…. [Digital] minimalism is much more than a set of rules, it’s about cultivating a life worth living in our current age of alluring devices.” (Newport, 253)

Newport’s on the same quest as the average Stoic:

To find the life worth living.

He might not be explicitly teaching Stoicism, but if Seneca or Epictetus were alive today, what would be their advice in regard to how to use and navigate this digital age?

Remember, they were not Cynics. The Cynics, no doubt, would eschew the device entirely. 

The Stoics would likely have found what they were best used for, and used them for those purposes only.

And that’s what the book is really about. 

The benefits?

  1. Increasing your connection with yourself and your values.
  2. Improving the quality of your friendships. 
  3. Improving the quality of your work. 
  4. Tranquility

Those are the types of benefits most of us seek when we pursue Stoicism.

I think this book makes a fine addition to the contemporary catalogue of good advice for living a Stoic life.

“The standard which I accept is this: one’s life should be a compromise between the ideal and the popular morality. People should admire our way of life but they should at the same time find it understandable.” (Seneca, Letters, V).

This is my first attempt at creating real content for the Stoicism Winnipeg community. If you have any feedback I’d love to hear it! Feel free to comment below or contact me with your thoughts.

Published by

Brendan Sonnichsen

Brendan lives and works in Winnipeg as a Paramedic. He founded the Stoicism Winnipeg community to meet with others who are pursuing Stoicism as their philosophy of life.

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